“Hearts will never be practical until they can be made unbreakable,” said the Wizard in L. Frank Baum’s classic The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Indeed, the end of a relationship can wreak consequences greater than feeling negatively for a time. When it comes to romantic breakups, it is hardly unusual to feel sadness, anger, and/or shame. But such dissolutions can also lead to insomnia, poor immune functioning, broken heart syndrome, depression, and even suicide.
Though the heart may not be practical, as Baum put it, are there practical strategies people can use to recover from a breakup? This question was the focus of a recent study conducted by Sandra J.E. Langeslag and Michelle Sanchez of the University of Missouri at St. Louis. They reasoned that because enduring feelings of love for an ex-partner can make breaking up so devastating, it may be helpful to try to diminish the intensity of those feelings. In other words, they recommend falling out of love.
The researchers drew from previous work on love regulation, which refers to “the use of behavioral or cognitive strategies to change the intensity of current feelings of romantic love.” They zeroed in on three widely-known emotion regulation strategies that could help decrease feelings of love for an ex-partner, and thus feel less distress over a breakup:
• Negative reappraisal of the ex-partner, which involves reminding yourself of the negative qualities about your ex.
• Reappraisal of love feelings, in which you tell yourself that it is normal and okay to still love your ex-partner, and to accept your feelings free of judgement.
• Distraction, in which you engage in activities, like watching a movie or playing games, to distract yourself from a breakup.
Langeslag and Sanchez wanted to see if these regulation strategies could change 1) the feelings of love for the ex-partner, 2) the valence of affect (i.e, feeling more positively or negatively), and 3) motivated attention for the ex- partner (i.e., attention paid to emotionally significant stimuli). So here’s what they did. They recruited 24 participants, comprised of 20 women and 4 men, who were between the ages of 20 and 37. These individuals had been in a long-term relationship, averaging 2 1/2 years in length, that had ended. The participants provided the research team with digital pictures of their exes, which depicted them in various non-intimate situations and wearing a range of facial expressions. These images essentially mimicked reminders of their exes as they would in the participants’ real lives, like seeing their exes on the street or on social media.
The researchers then split the participants into four groups: the negative reappraisal group; the love reappraisal group; the distraction group; and a control group. Participants viewed their full collection of pictures of their exes four times. In between looking at each image, they were instructed to engage in one of three strategies to decrease love feelings, and then rate how “in love” and how generally positive or negative they felt. Meanwhile, their electroencephalogram (i.e., electrical brain activity) was recorded. The control group was instructed not to think about anything specific. Here’s what the researchers found:
• Negative reappraisal decreased love feelings, and made participants feel more unpleasant.
• Love reappraisal did not change how in love or pleasant/unpleasant participants felt.
•Distraction did not change love feelings, but made participants feel more pleasant.
These findings suggest that when dealing with a romantic break-up, negative reappraisal is an effective strategy to decrease feelings of love for an ex-partner. And while negative reappraisal made the participants feel more negatively in the moment, the short-term pain may be worth the long-term gain if it helps people get over an ex. Meanwhile, distraction was found to be a useful strategy to feel more positively.
In addition, all three strategies in question decreased participants’ motivated attention for the ex-partner, according to the results of their electroencephalograms. This significant decline in motivated attention for an ex might make interactions or reminders of an ex less upsetting to cope with, the researchers contend.
Langeslag and Sanchez note some important limitations of their study. First, the majority of participants were women. Going forward, studies would benefit from having a more gender-balanced group of participants. They also point out that this study only considered feelings of love after each image of an ex was viewed. Thus they were only able to assess the short-term effects of these strategies – leaving their long-term potential yet to be clarified. Would these strategies remain effective over longer periods of time? Yet given the challenges that surround love and relationships, and the pain that they can cause, the authors maintain that these strategies could be useful not only to cope with a breakup, but also to bring about the end of a dysfunctional relationship. Thus, they warrant further investigation in the future.